‘Türk demek, Turkçe demektir. Ne mutlu Türk’üm diyene!’
The words are written on a banner one of our neighbours has strung from the balcony of his house. To be fair, we are not in Istanbul. We’re at our summer retreat near Bodrum; the summer season hasn’t officially opened, few people are around, and I’m hopeful our ultra-nationalist neighbour will pack his banner away before the place starts to fill up.
The modern Republic of Turkey is a complex state – that is probably the main message I aim to convey through this blog; and the words on our neighbour’s banner provide a brief glimpse into this complexity. The second sentence is generally attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founding father. Faced with the need to unite a diverse people to fight for national survival in the aftermath of disastrous defeats and in the face of foreign invasion and occupation, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (as he was then) played the one card that had any hope of success – the trump card of national identity. “How happy,’ he announced, ‘is the one who says ‘I am a Türk!’”
At the time, it must have been a risky gambit. The 600-year Ottoman Empire was on its knees, its capital, Istanbul, under foreign occupation, and its remaining territories under sentence of partition. The Sultan and Caliph, nominal ruler of the Empire and leader of the world’s Muslims, was a virtual prisoner and puppet of the occupying forces. ‘Turkishness’ itself was not a quality to be especially proud of. The ruling class were Ottomans, their language a hybrid of Turkish, Persian and Arabic, written in an Arabic script intelligible only to an educated few. The royal family had for centuries been breeding with women selected from the upper classes of non-Muslim and non-Turkish neighbours. Talented individuals from non-Turkish, non-Muslim nations within the Empire (especially Greek, Armenian and Jewish) had filled key positions in the imperial economy. Actual ‘Turks’ were more likely to be soldiers or farmers.
Those soldiers, and a good number of the farmers, had been fighting and dying for an empire whose boundaries had been shrinking for a century or more. Why would they be happy? Why would their mothers, fathers, sisters and children be happy? That Atatürk managed to inspire and unite them for one more deadly struggle against enemies bent on their destruction goes a long way towards explaining why the people of Turkey hold him in such reverence. The second sentence on our neighbour’s banner expresses an aspect of national consciousness beyond the mere lexical meaning of the words themselves.
The first sentence is a little more problematic, and I haven’t heard that they were ever spoken by Atatürk himself. The word ‘Türk’ can be rendered in English as ‘a Turk’ or ‘Turkish’ in the sense of national identity. ‘Türkçe’ means ‘the Turkish language’. The writer wants to say, I think, that the Turkish language is the soul of the Turkish nation. He or she may even be implying that native speakers of other languages can not be considered Turkish. If that is the case, it is rather unfortunate. There has been a good deal of house construction and renovation going on in Bodrum and Turkey recently. Many of the contractors and probably most of the workers are Kurdish. They are undoubtedly citizens of Turkey, but the majority of them would have, of necessity, learned the Turkish language after starting school. Until recently they were denied the right to speak their language and even to give their children Kurdish names. The fact that Turkey’s current government has relaxed these prohibitions and opened up discussion on the Kurdish issue is, ironically, one of the factors arousing anger amongst political opposition groups.
Another irony, perhaps, is the reason that those Kurdish people remained in the Republic when others left – they were Muslims. After Turkey’s War of Independence ended in 1922 with the defeat of the invading Greek army and the evacuation of occupying British troops from Istanbul, there was a major exchange of populations in which hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims were uprooted from their homes and sent, Muslims to Anatolia and Christians to the Greek state across the water. The result was that, however secular Atatürk’s intentions, his new Republic was overwhelmingly Muslim in demographic composition.
This religious-versus-secular contradiction is not the only paradox inherent in the new entity that was Turkey. Emerging as it did from the ashes of the discredited Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey had an uneasy relationship with its immediate predecessor. On the one hand the military, architectural, artistic and culinary achievements of its illustrious golden age were matters of great pride. On the other, its slow decline had left its people with a sense of inferiority and in its final death throes there were undoubtedly shameful events. Restoring national pride was a key goal of the new administration, at the same time as there was recognition of the need to follow a modernising path already trod by Western nations.
In fact, ‘restoring’ pride is probably not the correct word to use when talking about Turkish nationalism. ‘Creating’ perhaps better addresses the problem faced by the Republic’s early leaders. In a sense it was necessary to retrospectively leapfrog the Muslim Ottomans, the Christian Byzantines and the pagan Romans and to create a heritage of pure Turkishness based on those warrior horsemen (and women) who had spread out of Central Asia in waves from time immemorial. It was necessary to idealise the pre-Islamic spirituality of shaman tribesmen (and women) and to divest the corrupted Ottoman language of its Persian and Arabic borrowings. Connections were made to ancient Anatolian civilisations such as the Hittites, and a new Latin-based alphabet facilitated widespread literacy at the same time as it separated modern Turkey from its more recent history.
Without a doubt there must have been elements in those early days that were strongly opposed to the goals and methods of Atatürk and his colleagues: the religious elite and the simply devout villager must have been alarmed at the processes of secularisation. Educated intelligentsia must have been furious that years spent studying the Ottoman language would be devalued. Well-heeled urbanites, especially in Istanbul, may have felt uncomfortable with the inclusive, at times almost socialistic rhetoric of the new leader. As years went by, some at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum may have felt aggrieved that the rhetoric was slow to produce the promised brave new world.
It would require a large book to examine all the disparate groups that make up the modern Republic of Turkey. European neighbours may fear that opening their EU door to Turkey would lead to a flood of immigration to their economic paradise. Since the foundation of the Republic, Turkey itself has been a magnet drawing refugees seeking a safe haven from strife and oppression; the most recent being almost a million impoverished Syrians. Governing this country is no easy task – and it would not be surprising if its own citizens harboured some uncertainties about the best direction for reaching a happy future.
As an example, I would like to cite the case of a high-profile, highly educated, financially comfortable, internationally recognised Turkish gentleman. Orhan Pamuk is an acclaimed novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. As I remember, when that award was made, the response in Pamuk’s homeland was somewhat muted. Lately, however, his star seems to have risen and in recent months he has been the subject of some media attention. Possibly the key to this is an interview published in several Turkish dailies on May 23 under a headline quoting Pamuk as saying it was “impossible for an honest person not to criticise the [Turkish] government.”
Well, I have some history of criticising governments myself – but I find myself almost feeling sorry for Mr Tayyip Erdoğan and his team. These days the blame for pretty much everything is laid at their feet, and it seems to add weight to the criticism when it comes from someone with celebrity status. Last year it was a motley crew of actors and actresses from Hollywood and the UK. I’m not exactly sure why people assume that, because someone has achieved success in sport, pop singing, piano playing or movie acting, their opinions on national and international affairs must be worth publicising. Occasionally one or two do decide to put their credibility on the line by entering politics – footballer Hakan Şükür in Turkey and actress Glenda Jackson in England come to mind – and they would probably admit that doing is somewhat more difficult than talking.
Nevertheless, Mr Pamuk talks; in this instance, apparently, in Lyon, France while attending an international forum on “The Novel”. No doubt the French media are fond of Mr Pamuk, given that they have been trying to pin a charge of genocide on the Turkish people for years. Pamuk got himself in a spot of bother in 2005 after giving an interview where he was quoted as saying that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it.” His version of the story makes much of the fact that he was charged with “public denigration of Turkish identity” and had to flee the country. He tends to play down the details that the interview was with a newspaper in Switzerland (this country?); that the prosecution was brought by an ultra-nationalist lawyer who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in the ‘Ergenekon’ military coup conspiracy trial; and that Pamuk himself received little more than a judicial slap on the wrist. One might compare the fates of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange who are still trying to escape the clutches of the US justice system for telling the truth on a number of issues with serious implications for world peace.
The latest club for belabouring the government in Turkey is the deaths of 301 miners in a coal-mining accident two weeks ago. Certainly such events are unacceptable in a country with aspirations to rank among the world’s developed nations. Certainly the tragedy highlights problems with workers’ rights, workplace safety and collective bargaining in Turkey. On the other hand, those miners were working in dreadful conditions 400 metres underground for subsistence wages to extract coal, most of which is burned to produce electricity. In my opinion, some of those critics piously blaming the government for the Soma mine tragedy would do well to examine their personal carbon footprint before casting the first stone.
I don’t wish to single out Mr Pamuk for unfair criticism, but it does seem to me that he represents a section of Turkish society that is a little out of touch with the reality of life for the majority of his countrymen and women. In February this year, The New York Times published an article entitled “Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.” I don’t know where Mr Pamuk lives these days – the interview was apparently conducted mostly in the artsy Cihangir neighbourhood of Istanbul where the writer has recently opened a ’museum’ based on the fictional events in his novel “The Museum of Innocence”. I’m curious because the article neglects to mention that Pamuk is Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at New York’s Columbia University, and I’m wondering whether he commutes from Istanbul to carry out his teaching responsibilities.
Apart from gentrified Cihangir, Pamuk’s Istanbul also includes the plush old-money district of Nişantaşı, and the leafy Bosporus campus of Robert College where tuition will cost you an arm and a leg, even if your child manages to pass the entrance exam. The NY Times article asserts that Pamuk’s “work is as grounded in [Istanbul] as Dickens’ was in London”, while admitting later that (very unlike Dickens) “Most of Mr Pamuk’s characters are members of the secular elite”. To be fair, there may have been some difficult times for the Pamuk family, since young Orhan’s father apparently “frittered away much of his fortune through a series of bad investments”. However, he was still able to provide his son with a car and money for weekly visits to bookshops where he would “fill the trunk with books”. The bookshops were near the campus of Istanbul University where Pamuk was a student in the 1970s. At that time left wing protesters were being shot, imprisoned, tortured and disappeared in events leading up to and following two military coups. Pamuk, by his own admission, “while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers . . . spent most of his time reading at home in Nişantaşı.”
Well, you can’t blame the guy for that, even if it does imply a splash of pinkish armchair socialism. What surprised me more was reading that little Orhan’s first experience of foreign travel was a summer in Geneva with his father at the age of seven – and that he didn’t leave Istanbul again until he was 30. I feel sure the interviewer must have made an error in transcribing his notes here – but if not, I cannot comprehend how a Turkish citizen of such narrow geographical experience could claim to have any understanding of his country and its people.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the other hand, knew his people intimately. Another reason for his almost mythical status in Turkey is that, when the bullets and shrapnel were flying on that crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair/Conk Bayırı in 1915, he was leading his lads from the front rather than sitting at home reading.